“Record players” and reading: A brain scientist shares what actually works

Joe Biden’s debate comments about playing records for kids at night to enhance their academic performance left many confused. We asked professor Lisa Scott, director of the University of Florida’s Brain, Cognition & Development Lab, what science says about boosting brain development in infants and young children. 

“Actually, there’s quite extensive research that suggests that the early language environment is quite important for later developmental outcomes, including literacy,” she said. “The important part is words they hear that are directed at them. Reading, interacting — anything that increases language being spoken to the child to promote interactions — does seem to be critically important. I think that’s the work he was referring to, even though some of the ideas got conflated.”

Does that rule out records? Or any recorded sound, for that matter? Background speech definitely isn’t as good as IRL interaction, Scott says. Some studies have even shown that children’s play suffers when the television is on in the background.

“Research suggests that’s not the best way to enrich a child’s learning environment,” she said. Music can be beneficial, up to a point.

A lot of the work done with infants suggests that sounds present in language and sounds that might be present in music are very similar, and that the two may actually combine to be useful for infant learning and development,” she said. “I’m not sure there’s been any work that shows that listening to music is related to later literacy.”

So what should parents, voters and policymakers take away from one of the debate’s weirdest moments? Scott hopes it can shine a light on the importance of family-friendly policies, including increased paid parental leave, universal early pre-K and continued supports of programs like Head Start. 

“It is really important to provide families with the support system they need to be able to provide children with a supportive learning environment,” she said. “In particular I would love to see better parental leave policies so that parents can read to their infants, play music for their infants, sing to their infants and children and really provide that rich learning environment that includes a lot of language and a lot of interactive cuddling and talking — all of that stuff that is shown to be beneficial.”